Tinariwen made in USA
New album, Emmaar
Horses have replaced the dunes on the front cover, but the determination is the same. Far from the Malian conflict, Tinariwen have opted to record their sixth album, Emmaar, in the Californian desert. Featuring guest stars Saul Williams and Josh Klinghoffer, guitarist with Red Hot Chili Peppers, this is one of their best albums to date.
They never had an American Dream. The famous men of the desert never imagined that their voices and guitars would cross the Sahara and the seas to make a recording of assouf, the Tamashek blues at the heart of Tinariwen’s music. Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and California may be brother lands in which to meet an American audience, but not necessarily to make a record.
It took chaos in northern Mali and exile to push the group to record outside Africa. In Joshua Tree National Park, land of the rock group Queens of the Stone Age, a few tents pitched around a remote studio brought together the musicians whose lives are now scattered between the sands of northern Mali, Algeria and Niger.
"The hardest thing right now is meeting up. Once we’re together, the magic kicks in pretty quickly. The music came naturally in those wide open spaces, in this ‘rich’ desert that looks like ours, even though there’s water and loads of vehicles,” said long-standing band member, Alhassane ag Touhami, known as Hassan.
This analogue recording with ambient microphones captures the desert winds and wild open spaces with its hypnotic guitars, heady bass and throbbing percussion work. In exile and far from women, these globetrotting musicians staged their latest get-together in a minimalist, Western-style décor: “We were like cowboys,” laughed the young percussionist Saïd ag Ayad, “It was unbelievable! And yet sitting round the fire under the stars, we were at home! We needed that setting to feel comfortable, find inspiration and concentrate. Our music comes from there.”
Being in America brought an opportunity to invite some of the group’s artist fans, like the poet Saul Williams encountered at a festival, Josh Klinghoffer, guitarist with Red Hot Chili Peppers, and the violinist and pedal steel player from Nashville, Fats Kaplin, who fuelled the Californian dream with a dose of fantasy.
“We’ve always listened to American music and songs in English,” said Hassan. “Hendrix, Dire Straits, even Bob Marley. We used to pass round cassettes we’d recorded without putting a name on the music. Some people say we play rock, but for us it’s simply assouf, nostalgia, the blues,” summed up Saïd.
During this strange period for Mali, the group, and the land of Tamashek, the disk is a reflection of Emmaar. The album’s title is a concept difficult to translate: “It’s a state that lasts for a season, associated with heat like when you put your hand close to the fire. It’s a transitory state, like this recording in another desert,” explained Hassan, amused to see that such complexity and experience can’t be expressed outside the Tamashek language.
Another language could never convey the poetry that is the mark of Tinariwen, which has become a kind of school to train young artists of the desert (Bombino, Toumast, Tamikrest) before they take off their poetry and guitars to horizons new. “It’s wonderful to see these young people walking in our tracks. We’d actually like to set up some training centres! Tuaregs normally say you should stop music when you get to 55 – I’m 52 now…” smiled Hassan.
The moustached musician doesn’t look ready to lay down his instruments. Tinariwen have never viewed music as a job, much less retirement. “At the beginning, we didn’t intend to make a living from music, we wanted to convey a message and unite people. That’s still true, even though the message now is about peace and reconciliation,” conceded Hassan.
Far from their base and Kidal, where they haven’t been able to play for over two years, the ink still flows. Composed in the United States, Toumast Tincha is about “ideals sold cheap”. “The song is aimed at Tuaregs corrupted by Bamako’s power, who give up their ideals and make compromises that come to nothing,” said Hassan. “The situation is very hard, because nothing has a taste, no one wants to listen to music. Before, even if you didn’t have a penny to your name, you could go and drink tea under a tree and strum a guitar. That carefree side has gone.” But round the world, Emmaar (transition, tension) has just been released and Tinariwen is back on the road with a full team.